As District Works Towards Full-Time In-School For K-4; Phelan Commits To ‘Fully In-Person Start’ Of ’21 School Year

Photo: The Belmont School District is working to bring K-4 students back to full-time in-the-classroom instruction by April

Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan reiterated his stance from last week that the district is actively working to derive a program to safely send elementary school students back to the classroom full time in April, according to a press release dated Thursday, March 4.

Rather than add in-person hours to the existing hybrid plan for those attending Belmont’s four elementary schools, “we are now developing a plan for a full, in-person option for K-4 students,” said Phelan.

Phelan also used the release to acknowledge the strain the pandemic has had on residents and students for the past year and his personal pledge to “a strong fully in-person start of the school year in September 2021.”

“I am committed to finishing this school year better than we started. I am committed to returning students back to school as safely and quickly as possible starting with our youngest learners at the elementary schools,” he said. “I will be working tirelessly, along with the entire Belmont Public School community, to deliver on these commitments.”

As he stated in his release of Feb. 26, Phelan said the district has shifted its focus following the announcement by Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley who said on Feb. 23 that he will ask state permission to yank the hybrid option for the state’s youngest students.

In response, the district’s Return to In-Person Learning Working Group – the nearly 30 member group created last month to manage the transition to full-time in-school learning – had shifted its focus to now “building recommendations in subgroups which focused on physical distancing and classroom capacity, lunch and snack, specials and specialized instruction, remote-only options, and transportation,” said Phelan.

Monday, March 8: Working Group meeting and possible recommendations
Tuesday, March 9: Recommendations presented to at School Committee Meeting
Thursday, March 11: Q&A session with school administrators
Friday, March 12: Survey to all K-4 parents asking for remote/in-person choice
Wednesday, March 17: Survey due by 5 p.m.

And as Phelan promised when the group was formed, the working group has begun making “rolling recommendations” to the district on meeting his new goal. After its meeting on Monday, March 1, Phelan along with school principals and central office staff have begun reviewing emerging recommendations focusing on creating guidelines for social distancing in classrooms and non-learning spaces in the four elementary schools.

One of the leading constraints identified last summer hampering a return to full-time in-school learning throughout the district has been the lack of physical learning space required for 100 percent student participation with a required six-foot separation between students.

In addition to social distancing, the working group has also focused on addressing concerns related to the remote-only experience for those students and families that select to remain remote for the rest of the year, and taking stock of current PPE equipment, and make any recommendations so the schools are ready for a return to increased in-person learning.

The Working Group will meet again on Monday, March 8, and could issue recommendations at that time. If there are proposals from the Group, they will be made public at the School Committee the next day, March 9.

In an attempt to have families fully briefed on each learning option – in-person or remote – Phelan said the district will hold a Q&A session with school administrators on Thursday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. 

The district will send a survey to parents on Friday, March 12, on whether they would like to choose the remote or in-person option for their child.  The survey will be due Wednesday, March 17 and this selection will be binding for the remainder of the school year.

After the Working Group has completed its K-4 recommendations, it will then move into discussions of how to increase in-person learning at the middle and high schools. Initially, the Working Group will start with grade 5 by leveraging their recommendations from the K-4 given the self-contained grade 5 model which is more similar to our elementary schools.

On a personal note, Phelan said he was well aware of the considerable hardship the school community – students, staff, parents – has taken on since the pandemic halted in-school learning in March 2020.

“I want to recognize that this has been a difficult year for students, as well as for parents and families. It has also been the most significant challenge our educators have ever faced. There are no easy answers as we battle COVID-19,” said Phelan.

“I appreciate and acknowledge that change can be disruptive and that these plans will be met with happiness by some and concern by others. I look forward to working together to deliver on three big commitments: finish the year better than we started; return more students to in-person learning this spring, and focus on a full in-person start to the year in the fall.”

“I … want to thank the families of Belmont for the grace they have shown–and continue to show–as we work through this devastating public health crisis,” said Phelan.

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